I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that the end of the rugby season is always a bittersweet moment.
On the one hand, there’s a huge sense of loss. I’m sure that many of you are like me in that the prospect of a game of rugby on Saturday is what keeps you going through the long drawn-out winter months. It makes the week shorter and your mood brighter, because you know that not only will you get to spend 80 minutes playing the most rewarding sport in the world, but that you’ll also get to spend time with your closest and most trusted friends. Rugby teams are like that.
Perversely, I also love playing in foul weather. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of a pint and some match food, no matter how mediocre, after you’ve been running around in a pair of very short shorts, in a hailstorm, covered head to toe in muck and being punched in the ribs. It’s a feeling only a rugby player would understand, but chances are, if you’re reading this, I don’t need to explain it to you. Never will you feel more alive.
But on the other hand, the end of the season is a moment of unbridled joy. For weeks on end, you won’t spend your Sundays and Mondays walking funny, struggling to reach your socks or quivering in agony, at the prospect of tasks as inane as getting in and out of your car. Your body gets to recover, and this season I’m certainly feeling like mine needs the recovery time.
After all, it’s been a season like no other, and we ended ours a couple of weeks back with a truly amazing experience. After securing second position in our merit table – our team’s best full-season performance in, well over a decade – the final high was to take part in a cup final.
The team that, just three years ago, was the second worst team in Cambridgeshire had risen like a phoenix to reach such heady heights, thanks in no small part to an amazingly dedicated youth section that finally delivered us a wave of senior age players who were hungry to prove themselves. Alongside the strength and experience of an ageing but solid pack, and some fairly dynamic coaching changes at the club, the injection of youth was the shot in the arm we needed.
To the boys of St Ives RFC 2nd XV (for this is the first time I’ve named you in this column), I take my hat off to you. But just my hat, okay? Let’s not have a repeat performance of the bus journey home from that cup final.
Speaking of which, the 2nd XV trophy cabinet still remains nothing more exotic than an overspill first aid cupboard. Despite the best turnout of players I’ve had all season (the cup final drew 28 affirmatives into my inbox, strangely enough), and the perfect mental attitude going into battle, the dream never became a reality.
I won’t say it wasn’t our day, however, for it well and truly was. From the 18-year old lads boarding the bus to take part in their first ever cup final to our 56-year old club president and occasional fly-half, for whom it may well be his last as a player, the emotional bond between us that day was unbreakable. We would be as united in defeat as we would be in victory, and when the final whistle blew and we knew it wasn’t to be, we came together in a group and, for one brief moment, were the only people that mattered.
Sure, we’d lost. Sure, we were bruised and battered. But where we were was in a field in which we’d just played a cup final. That, for lads like us, was bloody massive – for some of us, myself included, an experience we never thought we’d have - and in the final minutes of our season, after the ref had called time, we were there for each other with as strong a passion as we had been all season.
Of course, it ended messily. Ours was one of four games being played on Cambridgeshire RFU’s cup finals day, and the format of the day meant we got to hang around and watch the last one from the touchline, having raided the refreshments we’d stashed on-board the hire coach.
That was followed by more reverie, both on the bus and back at our own club, where we joined the 1st XV players for an end-of-season session.
There are clichés that abound about rugby players being loud, drunk and occasionally raucous. I’d love to tell you they’re a myth, but on that particular evening they most certainly weren’t. After all, we’d had our first cup final, our first 2nd XV bus trip, and, well, what goes on tour stays on tour!